“What is dance now?” artistic director Helgi Tomasson asked in the middle of San Francisco Ballet’s gala, making a pitch for the massively ambitious Unbound Festival that will crown this company’s 85thseason with 12 world premieres by 12 international choreographers unveiled in four days. If we may recast Tomasson’s question a bit more specifically, to “What is ballet now?” this was a perfect question for the moment.
The ballet world is, of course, still absorbing news of Peter Martins’s retirement as ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet after dancer allegations of appalling abuse, though the tuxedoed and satin-bustled gala socialites promenading within San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House seemed mostly unaware of the shakeup, or perhaps just relieved that for 33 years we’ve had a soft-voiced, mild-mannered leader (one of NYCB’s greatest male dancers of the 70s) at SFB’s helm. Still, “What is ballet now?”—the inquiry is timely. And at least one possible answer presented by this gala was already heartening.
Justin Peck’s 2015 “Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes” is well-known to New York City Ballet audiences, but it was fresh to San Francisco, and unusual for gala fare—a full-length ballet rather than the usual string of gymnastic ditties. Hearing the full lush, stirring Aaron Copland score played by an ensemble of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra’s sensitivity rather than the usual oompah loompah music of 19th century bon bons made for rapture enough. But Peck’s “Rodeo” is refreshing for much deeper reasons.
Here we have a re-visioning of the music made famous by Agnes de Mille’s 1942 narrative ballet about a tough ranch girl finding true love because she finally puts on a dress. But here the story and the setting and the cowboy swagger are all jettisoned. In their place: pure, beautiful, ensemble male dancing. Lyrical dancing, often using steps typically reserved for women, like arabesque with arms held, “Giselle”-style, in third position—but never campy dancing. And a solo woman—the commanding, joyous Sofiane Sylve on Thursday night—who is not an object of lust so much as an inspiring spiritual presence: A woman who, as partnered by the tender dignity incarnate of Carlo di Lanno, is treated with equality and allowed to exercise her agency, warmly but assertively flinging di Lanno’s hand off her hip before enfolding him in a loving embrace.
Perhaps such a social vision should not be so eye-opening in ballet (modern dance has had its equivalent from artists like Paul Taylor for more than half a century), but we’re not many years past the era when “ballet is woman” operated as a double-edged manifesto, entailing idealization but also manipulation. In Peck’s kindly, utopian world, exuberant Esteban Hernandez led the virtuoso trio in red, flanked by air-slicing Wei Wang and Hansuke Yamamoto. I adored the vaguely footballer costumes of knee length shorts and striped shirts by Reid Bartelme, Harriet Jung, and Peck himself. And a great laugh went up from the audience when Hernandez nailed the “Hoe-down” movement trick of slowing his grand pirouettes exactly to the blats of the petering-out trombone.
Such conspicuous virtuosity is essential in a gala, and Tomasson gave us plenty of it. One of the more exciting international recruits in recent memory is Royal Danish Ballet star Ulrik Birkkjaer; Tomasson paired him with our resident Russian-doll powerhouse Maria Kochetkova for the forest pas de deux from “La Sylphide,” and I’m hard-pressed to say which charmer captured the buoyancy of the Danish style more faithfully. SFB has not staged the full “La Sylphide” since the mid-90s; let’s hope this snippet was a harbinger.
Another hotly anticipated principal recruit: Ana Sophia Scheller, lured away from NYCB. Meticulous of line yet bold in gestural exaggeration, she dispatched the pas de deux from Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” with aerobic elan, while her partner, Vitor Luiz, carried off the Balanchine speed but didn’t quite gather the height for those whiz-bang pas de poison and scissor-step jetes.
For contemporary lyricism, we had Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh clad in jewel-toned Lycra for a section of “Children of Chaos” by the Canadian Robert Binet. I was moved by the ending, when the minimalist piano and string score by John Kameel Farah cedes to Buddhist-sounding chimes, and Chung and Walsh stand together as though surrendering, then finish in an odd legs-bracing-her-torso lift, arms swimming in slow motion. But I struggled to discern much pattern of structure to the rest of the excerpt’s stiffly swinging legs and gently anguished reaches—which left me thinking I need to see much more of Binet’s work before I know quite how I feel.
One thing I know: I hope the future of ballet is not Edwaard Liang’s “Letting Go,” which yet again cast eternal victim-of-love Yuan Yuan Tan in a marathon of Gumby-limbed lifts with bare-chested, ever stately di Lanno. What a company MVP di Lanno is becoming—he makes the treacliest partnering duties profound.
Back in the land of pyrotechnic virtuosity, the two Petipa selections did not fail to drop jaws. Dores Andre fluttered most stylishly in the Bluebird pas from “Sleeping Beauty” opposite Wei Wang, who mastered the wing-flapping illusion of the famous brisés volé. It was a treat to see Andre, so often cast as the sexy siren these days, back in her crisp, perky classicist mode, with such clean hops en pointe. And it was sheer exhilaration to see reigning queen of classicism, Sasha De Sola, whip through at least 12 double fouetté turns in the “Le Corsaire” pas de deux in between bursts of sky-high jumps from SFB’s most technically tour-de-force man, Angelo Greco, who has charisma to match his chops. This was the first time I’ve seen these two paired, and the physically well-matched result was enough to make you faint with astonishment—more together, please.
Yet when the fireworks fade, it’s the subtler inclusions in this gala that sink deeper into my heart. After the children of the school in Tomasson’s “Little Waltz” as an opener, we were served sustaining fare: Jerome Robbins’s “In the Night,” in full. SFB’s Parisian perfume, Mathilde Froustey, danced the opening “young love” pas de deux with corps member Benjamin Freemantle, who makes up for whatever tightness he may hold in his shoulders with suppleness in his feet, and who convinced me on his knees that annihilation was a fine price to pay for Froustey’s loveliness.
Our resident method actress, Sarah Van Patten, took on the final duet of flinging, dysfunctional passion opposite suffering Luke Ingham and proved herself born for the part. But it was the middle pas de deux, to Chopin’s Nocturnes in F minor and E flat major, that haunted me like a scene out of Tolstoy, danced by Jennifer Stahl and Tiit Helimets. This is the duet of dignified, married love—a love of passion constricted by convention and moral standing—and, I am guessing, the hardest duet of the ballet to dance with full nuance. Helimets is seasoned in it, and dances the repressed husband to perfection. Stahl was new in the role, and had some bobbles—yet suggested the inner yearning of this matron with exquisite understanding.
Ripening talents like Stahl’s give me confidence that SF Ballet will give a new works panoply of value to the dance world come April, even if more than half the commissions (a conservative estimate of failure for a new works festival) prove passing fancies or duds on arrival. The 12 “Unbound” choreographers are Peck, Myles Thatcher, Alonzo King, Christopher Wheeldon, Arthur Pita, Cathy Marston, Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, Trey McIntyre, Stanton Welch, Dwight Rhoden, Liang, and David Dawson. A season of known riches—including a whole program devoted to Robbins—lies between now and the unveiling of further answer to Tomasson’s question.